William Barr said in a 1998 interview that he was “disturbed” that Attorney General Janet Reno had not defended independent counsel Ken Starr from “spin control,” “hatchet jobs” and “ad hominem attacks.”
Two decades later, Barr is now attorney general himself – and defending another president who has repeatedly blasted a special counsel’s investigation of his activities. Barr stayed silent as President Donald Trump railed against special counsel Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt.” And as Barr released a redacted version of Mueller’s report last week, the attorney general offered the best possible portrayal of the unflattering findings about his boss.
Barr’s 1998 comments about “spin control” came several months after he co-authored a public statement with three fellow former attorneys general expressing concern that attacks on Starr from officials in the Clinton administration appeared “to have the improper purpose of influencing and impeding an ongoing criminal investigation and intimidating possible jurors, witnesses and even investigators.”
Barr, then several years removed from his time as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, co-authored the March 1998 open letter with former Attorneys General Ed Meese, Dick Thornburgh and Griffin Bell – two fellow Republicans and a Democrat, respectively. All four men opposed the Independent Counsel Act but thought Starr was being unfairly maligned.
”What I don’t understand about the modern psyche is that nobody cares about the truth,” Barr said in the September 1998 interview with Investor’s Business Daily that was dated just days after the public release of the Starr report, which detailed President Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and outlined a case for impeachment. “The whole system should be geared to getting the truth. But it has been geared to stonewalling and spinning what people think.”
CNN’s KFile found the letter and interview during a review of Barr’s public comments during the Whitewater investigation, which led to Starr’s report. Hillary Clinton at the time had referred to the Starr investigation as part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband, with the White House and allies attacking Starr as a partisan prosecutor.
”We were also disturbed that the incumbent attorney general wasn’t coming to (Starr’s) defense. There has been only silence,” Barr said, concluding Starr should be allowed to finish his work free from White House attacks.
”Starr should be given the chance to get the facts out. We live in a world of spin control and ad hominem attacks,” he said. ”And we’re seeing a lot of hatchet jobs.”
Twenty years later, Mueller’s special counsel investigation has similarly homed in on the White House inner circle amid daily efforts by Trump and his allies to undermine its credibility.
Barr, now in his second tenure as attorney general under Trump, has come under intense scrutiny as he ushered the Mueller investigation to its conclusion and through the public release of its redacted report last week.
Backlash to Barr
During his confirmation hearing earlier this year, Barr praised Mueller and defended the legitimacy of the special counsel probe, promising to allow it to finish without interference.
But Democrats on Capitol Hill in recent days have criticized Barr for spinning what they’ve called a misleading narrative out of the report in a four-page summary he released late last month and in a news conference he gave ahead of the redacted report’s public release.
In those remarks and in his prior “principal conclusions” summary, Barr downplayed the amount of evidence Mueller had amassed behind a potential obstruction charge against the President. He did, however, note in the summary that while Mueller’s report “does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Barr also offered the public a contested view of the role an internal Department of Justice memo stating that a sitting president cannot be indicted played in Mueller’s decision to not recommend that charge.
“We specifically asked him about the (Office of Legal Counsel) opinion and whether or not he was taking the position that he would have found a crime but for the existence of the OLC opinion,” Barr said at his news conference. “And he made it very clear several times that that was not his position.”
Mueller’s report, however, directly explains how this had a major impact on his internal deliberations. In effect, Mueller framed his entire obstruction investigation around the notion that he couldn’t bring any charges against Trump even if he found ironclad evidence against him, because of the Office of Legal Counsel opinion.
Discussing potential acts of obstruction of justice by Trump that had been reviewed by the special counsel’s team, Barr said Thursday that Trump had been “frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency.”
In response, a number of prominent Democrats have slammed Barr for not being independent from the White House.
“Barr’s actions have made it impossible for the American people to have faith that the Justice Department’s handling of this process was anything but partisan,” Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat who is running for president, said last week.
A Justice Department official, responding Monday to a request for comment on the 1998 interview and letter in light of the criticism around Barr’s handling of the release of the redacted Mueller report, said Barr was motivated to release the report “in the interest of transparency” and said the press conference was “important to address – on-the-record – questions of process,” including the redaction process, claims of executive privilege, and interactions between Justice Department officials and the White House leading up to the report’s release.
“The Attorney General, as the nation’s chief law enforcement official, was fully within his authority to discuss both the confidential report given to him and his decision-making process,” the official said in a written response.
Democratic congressional leaders have called for Mueller to testify about his findings. Last week, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-New York, said he had requested Mueller’s testimony before his committee “as soon as possible” and no later than May 23.
At the news conference last week, Barr said he had “no objection” to Mueller testifying.
Stood by Starr
In the 1998 open letter, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal after its release, the former attorneys general said they found Starr to be of “the highest personal and professional integrity,” and that he should be allowed to do his duties free of “harassment.”
“We believe any independent counsel, including Mr. Starr, should be allowed to carry out his or her duties without harassment by government officials and members of the bar,” they wrote.
“As former attorneys general, we are concerned that the severity of the attacks on Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and his office by high government officials and attorneys representing their particular interests, among others, appear to have the improper purpose of influencing and impeding an ongoing criminal investigation and intimidating possible jurors, witnesses and even investigators,” the four men wrote.
A special prosecutor, such as Mueller, is appointed by the Justice Department. Starr was appointed by a three-judge panel from the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, to continue the Whitewater investigation. Starr replaced independent counsel Robert Fiske, who had been appointed by Reno but needed to be reappointed by the three-judge panel under the then-newly reauthorized independent counsel law in 1994. The panel instead chose Starr. The independent counsel law expired in 1999.
In an interview Tuesday, Meese, who served as attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, praised Barr’s handling of the Mueller report’s release and deflected criticism that he had put a political spin on it.
“I don’t think he was spinning at all. I think he was accurate on the summary that he gave on that weekend and what he said in the prelude to the release of the report I think was accurate as well. I think Bill Barr has handled this extremely well,” Meese said.
Meese also said he didn’t see a contradiction between their 1998 statement and Barr’s handling of the Mueller report.
“I can’t remember all the details. At the time, I think the content of it is we thought that Starr, who all of us there knew quite well and knew his work and thought that he ought to be given a chance to complete the investigation,” Meese said. “At no time did the Department of Justice for that matter intervene in terms of trying to accuse or to limit or do anything except try to get the (independent) counsel to have the opportunity to come to a conclusion and he took plenty of time to do it.”
Thornburgh, who served as attorney general under both Reagan and Bush, declined to comment. Bell, who served as attorney general under President Jimmy Carter, died in 2009.
Asked about his 1998 open letter in a set of written questions prior to his confirmation earlier this year, Barr said he would ensure Mueller could finish his work uninterrupted but he declined to speculate on public attacks on Mueller.
“I believe that the Special Counsel should be allowed to finish his work, and if confirmed it will be my intent to ensure that his investigation is completed without inappropriate outside influence,” wrote Barr. “I am not in a position to speculate on the motivations behind any given comment, but I know Robert Mueller personally and I am confident that he is not affected by commentary or criticism.”
Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January at his confirmation hearing, Barr pushed back on Trump’s signature disparagement of the Mueller probe.
“I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt,” he said.
He added later, however, “I think it’s understandable that if someone felt they were falsely accused they would view an investigation as something like a witch hunt, where someone like you or me who doesn’t know the facts might not use that term.”
In a separate appearance on Capitol Hill earlier this month, before Senate appropriators, Barr tempered his pushback against Trump’s criticism even more.
“It really depends on where you’re sitting,” Barr said, asked if he believed Mueller was on a witch hunt. “I’ll use my own adjectives.”